Political To-Do

Both houses of Congress assembled for the State of the Union.
Convince Americans that the two parties are hopelessly broken and obsolete.

Unify everyone in the political universe who objects to Trump.

Restore the broken connection between the people and their federal representatives.

Create an entirely new political party organized around relevant and forward-looking governmental goals.

Neutralize corrupt actors, including all those who lobby or influence elections with money.

Convince disenchanted voters to support a new third party.

Cultivate a new generation of knowledgeable citizens and public-spirited leaders.

Lure decent moderates back into politics.

Turn off the television.

Cultivate national self-love.

Image: Both houses of Congress assembled for President Trump’s first State of the Union address, January 2017.

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The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.

Bringing Political Innovation to Market

Photograph of a Polaroid Land Camera 1000 by Chris Lüders (shared via Wikimedia Commons)

Can corporate models teach us anything about political change?  One of the problems politically active Americans face today is that the Republican and Democratic parties are organized around outmoded ideas (a topic I’ve written a lot about already).  Yet what do we know about how to bring new political ideas to market?  How do we introduce better ways and ideas to a political marketplace that, for over a century, has been dominated by just two parties?

The Instagram/Polaroid analogy

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading a smart article by Nick Bilton about Instagram, the digital photo-sharing start-up that Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire.  The hallmark of an Instagram is its resemblance to an old-fashioned Polaroid.

What interested Bilton was why a start-up had brought this idea to market, rather than an old-line camera company like Kodak or Polaroid.  These were, after all, the towering pioneers of innovative film processing.  Polaroid, in particular, had made its name developing a camera and film process that allowed people to make and share their photographs instantly.  For decades, Kodak and Polaroid were cash cows, dominating the markets that sprang up around their own innovative technologies.

Yet, amid the onslaught of digital technology, neither proved able to change enough.  Though the market for their products had been dwindling for decades, neither company managed to make the transition to digital.  Today, both companies are teetering on the brink of death, while Instagram has grown rich and famous on the strength of images with a “Polaroid feel.”

“Disruptive technologies”

Bilton concluded that the success breeds constraints that make established companies hesitant to embrace the next new idea.  Companies become wedded to the ideas that brought them to the top.  They develop cultures aimed at perpetuating the gains that have already been made.  Having once brought a new idea to market, the resulting business rightly views the next new idea or technology as disruptive.

A company dependent on profits from an existing technology will have trouble compromising that in order to capitalize on the next new thing.  As one of Bilton’s sources observes, “It’s tough to change the fan belt when the engine is running.”  (And didn’t Bill Gates once admit to being terrified of the next unknown, tinkering with a new idea in his garage?)

The analogy applies to the political scene

This is exactly how I think about the political scene, whose very landscape the Democratic and Republican parties have shaped.  These two parties became dominant because, at crucial points in our history, they supplied ideas and platforms that were right for the time.  The visions and forms of action they proposed were ones around which millions of citizens could organize.

Support for the major parties is dwindling because they rely on outmoded ideas.  They sell products many of us have no interest in buying.  An estimated 30 percent of voters are not aligned with either party, making each “major” party a minority.

Yet, structurally, the parties deter competition.  Though ideologically moribund, the Republican and Democratic parties are vigorous institutions.  They are known entities.  They have millions of adherents, and familiar brand names.  They’re well capitalized.  And they sit atop vast hierarchies of state and local organizations that penetrate into every ward and district of the country.  Every political event in the US is understood and described in terms of these two entities, a sure sign of their authority.

These behemoths are more interested in maintaining market share than in changing their offerings.  Too much newness carries risk, just as it did for Kodak and Polaroid.  There may be a broad constituency out there, clamoring for new political leadership, but the major parties will view as a disruption any force hoping to reinvigorate politics by espousing a new ideology.

The calcified rhetoric of our politicians and their parties is strangely at odds with the political ferment of the time.  All around lies evidence of amazing levels of political activism and concern, whether on the left or the right, whether in populist movements like Occupy or the Tea Party, or in the billions of comments, tweets, and posts that Americans generate in political conversation every day.

Unlike in business, how ideas move from the bottom to the top of the political hierarchy is incredibly murky.  Yet anyone who wants to get this country into better political shape needs to take an interest in the how of political change.

Image: A Polaroid Land Camera 1000,
courtesy of the photographer, Chris Lüders, from this source.

What We Know About American Third Parties

We’ve had many third-party movements over the last century, but none has achieved national dominance; few have proved lasting.  In fact, third-party candidates do not win elections.  As Peter Kiernan observes in his book, Becoming China’s Bitch (poorly written but interesting), whenever third-party candidates or their ideas begin to gain traction, the major parties co-opt them.  Individuals who run as third-party candidates without having a true national party organization behind them are doomed to be remembered as irritating spoilers.  The so-called independent candidate—whether wealthy or quixotic—is wasting our time.

Creating a lasting third party in the US could be accomplished, but it would take at least a decade.  The new party would have to be ideologically distinct from the existing parties—perhaps even inimical to them—, yet moderate enough in its outlook to gain traction in the mainstream.  In addition, the viability of such a party would have to be proved at the state level first.  A new party solidly established in several of the largest, wealthiest, and most diverse states—say Florida, New York, Texas, and California—might have a hope of success nationally.

RELATED:
A President Without a Party? Americans Elect

A President Without a Party? Americans Elect

Have you heard of this?  Americans Elect is an online method for nominating and electing a president without the aid of a party.  It’s an intriguing if problematic experiment that’s gotten a lot of press this election season.  Thomas L Friedman praised it as a well thought-out initiative that could demolish our “two-party duopoly.”  As late as last week, an enthusiastic Douglas Schoen of The Daily Beast proclaimed “it’s not too late” for Americans Elect to produce November’s winning ticket.  (Wikipedia identifies Mr Schoen as a paid consultant for AE.)  Supporters expect AE’s momentum to build in the next few months, as the remaining Republican candidates are winnowed.

The idea of Americans Elect is so seductive.  Just visit its website: it’s as simple and pristine as a new Apple computer.  With its childlike graphics and cheery colors, it makes politics seem so uncomplicated and straightforward.  You will be walked through the steps of political participation.  All you need to do is supply your email address (every trust relationship begins with that these days), check a few boxes regarding your political values, fill in the blanks regarding your favorite candidates, and—wah-la!—you have circumvented everything you loathe about the parties and pushed the country one step toward a brighter future.  Or have you?

The premise of Americans Elect is that “the voice” of “the people” is being distorted and disregarded, and that the nation will be better off if we eliminate all political intermediaries.  Americans Elect aspires to get rid of parties (which it pictures as impeding the rise of the best leaders) by crowd-sourcing the nominating process and the (snakier) task of platform-building.  Leave behind the mess of face-to-face politicking!  We can achieve a better outcome impersonally, with the aid of quantification and the newest technology.  This is the gist of Americans Elect’s appeal.

To my mind, AE’s fails to identify our system’s real demons.  We do not need “more democracy.”  I’m not sure we even need better leaders.  We do need better ideas and a reining-in of excesses in the way political candidates and partisans campaign.  In the meantime, Americans Elect is a legitimate expression of frustration: a way for voters to threaten the security of the Democratic and Republican Parties, which have turned into such behemoths that it’s hard to imagine how to supplant them or get them to change.  The difficulties of creating a competitive new national party are daunting.  It could be done, but it hasn’t—not for the last 150 years.

Nonetheless, isn’t building that party better than embracing the alternative Americans Elect is offering, which is to elect a president dependent on—nobody?  Whose only debt is to the electorate, considered abstractly?  Parties constrain the executive by placing him or her under obligation to a brokering community.  Historically, presidents have been constrained—in a good way—by a large community of peers, who are party statesmen.  Americans Elect aims to create an executive untrammeled by any such obligation.  “Pick a president, not a party,” its slogan proclaims.  This atomized notion of leadership would make the Founding Fathers, who were all members of the political elites of their states, turn in their graves.

Will AE be the wild card of 2012?  And what kind of ticket will it field?  Despite its non-partisan stance (apolitical, really), Americans Elect must itself become a party or fail.  Even as it effects a technological end-run around this eventuality, outside forces require its transformation from the virtual to the real.  The process has begun already.  The organization has been engaged in a massive signature drive (using paid organizers) so that, once its presidential ticket has been selected, its choice will appear on ballots nationwide.  Meanwhile, questions regarding AE’s personnel, financing, field operations, organizational status, and lack of transparency are swirling.  No matter how they are resolved, this intriguing experiment forces us to think again about why we need parties and the work we count on the parties to do.

RELATED:
Newsweek
article by Andrew Romano
Wikipedia entry on Americans Elect
Comments re. Americans Elect on Fred Wilson’s blog AVC